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West Side Story review – Spielberg’s magnificent ode to old-school Hollywood

This remake marks the director's first ever musical, a remarkable achievement that fills the screen with life, light, colour, and song

As awards seasons get ever more dominated by streaming services and their films that a lot of people probably first watched on their phones, it feels vitally important that we keep getting movies like Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story. A name-brand director turning his mastery of old-school Hollywood craft onto a musical custom-built to be seen in a crowd and on a big screen, it’s the melodramatic glamour of the movies cranked up to its highest level, deeply moving and magnificently put together by one of the great living filmmakers.

If you already know West Side Story (original play or 1961 film), or even are familiar with Romeo and Juliet, Spielberg’s very faithful update won’t have much to surprise you, plot-wise. Two gangs – the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks – vie for control of a doomed New York neighbourhood while a forbidden romance between semi-reformed Jet Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler), the sister of Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez), leads to passion and tragedy. It’s familiar, but to be anything else with source material this good would be doing it a disservice.

Spielberg retains all the best of Leonard Bernstein’s music, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, and Jerome Robbins’s iconic choreography, and uses all his power to make them shine even brighter. It’s his first ever musical, but his ability to turn his hand to any genre holds true here, and the sheer craft on display here is just a marvel – nobody just makes a damn movie quite like Spielberg does. All the lighting and framing and blocking is flawless, making every frame a joy to look at, and pitch-perfect sound design – not to mention the superb decision to cast mainly from musical theatre rather than pre-established big names – gives the songs such a crisp beauty that it’s impossible to not be swept up.

Though there are a couple of recognisable faces here, from Baby Driver’s Elgort to Rita Moreno returning to the story that won her an Oscar 60 years ago, West Side Story is mostly a film of star-making performances, as Spielberg’s knack for perfect casting pays off yet again. Zegler – who has since booked parts in superhero and Disney princess movies – is luminous in her first ever film role, with a thousand-megawatt smile and sensational singing voice, while the supporting cast pretty much steal the show.

As Bernardo, Alvarez is a fireball of charisma, whilst Ariana DeBose is magnetic as Anita. On the Jets side, it’s Mike Faist who stands out as Riff, all coiled tension with the weight of a lifetime of disappointment pulling him down in every scene. There isn’t a weak link to be found, and the across-the-board talent when it comes to dancing and singing and general acrobatics allows Spielberg to indulge in long, sweeping takes of the musical numbers themselves, a mesmerising showcase for the choreography and Janusz Kaminski’s exceptional camerawork. It’s a rare treat to watch a single star being born across the course of a movie – West Side Story offers that pleasure at least four times over.

Outside of the songs, Tony Kushner’s mostly reverent script does make some key updates, tapping further into the racism that fuels so much of this story, and connecting it to the institutions of New York in a way that deepens the ferocious emotions at play. It’s an impressive feat, balancing the required modern ‘relevance’ with the original’s timelessness, giving us dialogue that both delights and stings.

In a 50 year career that has so often defined the very best of classical mainstream studio movie-making, it feels shocking that this is Spielberg’s first ever musical. It’s one of those foundational genres that you could have sworn he’d have tackled, but he’s made us wait all the way until 2021 and, incredibly, it’s been absolutely worth it. West Side Story is a joyous condensation of Spielberg’s own love of film, full of movement and colour and technical know-how, all adding up to the perfect family Christmas trip to the movies.

West Side Story is in cinemas from December 10.

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